Louise Erdrich has always struck me as being a particularly warm and accessible writer, for whom humor is never far away and who can write about tragic events with a poignancy that never veers into pathos.
The Porcupine Year (HarperCollins 2008) is the third – but not the last – in the series about an Ojibwe girl named Omakayas and her close-knit extended family. The Porcupine Year relates the events of the year 1852, during which the family is uprooted from their beloved home next to Lake Superior in Minnesota all the way up to the Lake of the Woods, where they hope to meet up with family. Omakayas grows in many ways, finally becoming a woman when she gets her first period, but also experiencing strange new emotions about a young man and learning many essential lessons about healing plants and surviving on very little.
The small group has some good luck but is also beset by much misfortune, even coming close to complete starvation. There is a death and much loss. However, though they must often mourn, Omakayas’ family and loved ones never despair. They do what they must, accept what they must, and continue on, never forgetting to celebrate good fortune, however small and fleeting. This quiet resilience is captivating, as is the way the family members interact. Some are grumpy, some are gruff, and Quill can be just plain silly – yet their ties are so strong that they all treat each other with respect and love.
Quill, Omakayas’ younger brother, continues to be an annoying yet often refreshing clown of a character. He lightens many a scene, and yet he also gets his chance to shine as he becomes a skilled and dedicated hunter. The character that is most intriguing to me, however, is Old Tallow, whose wrenching story we finally learn. That we always have a choice in how we will live our lives has rarely been more convincingly or affectingly conveyed.
Erdrich’s simple sentences and understated prose manage to relate a story of surprising depth, lightened by sparks of humor, and her talent is such that she makes it look easy.
A thoughtful and entertaining read for grades 4 and up.